At the weekend I read poems about trees in the sweet company of Matilda Bevan‘s Nootka cypress (Cupressus nootkatensis) at her gorgeous exhibition The Common Language of Green in Healey Church. On Bonfire Night and around Samhain it felt right to turn our minds and hearts to trees as we enter the dark time of year – and now COP27 just beginning in Egypt, reminding us how intertwined we humans are with all life on the planet.
If you’d like to spend more time delving into where we find ourselves just now in the biosphere and locate your own place in the mycorrhizal web, there are two events in Newcastle this week you might like to come along to.
On Thursday night (10th November) at 7pm I’ll be reading with Poets of the Climate Crisis at Culture Lab, Newcastle University, alongside Mina Gorji and Togara Muzanenhamo, and in conversation with Jake Polley, as part of this term’s NCLA programme.
It will be a fascinating evening – free to attend and you can find out more and book here.
Any excuse to return to the Villa Borghese Gardens
Then on Saturday (12th November) I’m facilitating a day’s workshop (10-4) called The Classroom of Trees (a title I took from Jason Allen-Paisant’s wonderful Thinking with Trees (Carcanet 2021).
This is the sort of thing we’ll be thinking and writing about:
Why are there so many poems written about trees? And under trees? What more is there to say about trees? What do they teach us about the world and about ourselves? In this generative workshop we will be ‘thinking with trees’ (Jason Allen-Paisant): ‘Trying to be part of the forest, to learn their names by breathing.’
No specific arboreal knowledge is necessary – simply a willingness to explore the ‘tawny grammar’ (Thoreau) and ‘mother-wit’ (Snyder) of our deep connection with these venerable plants that hold the key for a more culturally-rooted sustainable future.
There are still places available and everyone is very welcome. I can’t think of a much better way to spend a Saturday in November – in the company of trees and fellow writers open to exploring what deep changes can happen (in our writing and our lives) when we take time for ‘thinking with trees’. Here’s more information and how to book.
And as a small forward-looking postscript, a cheer of appreciation to Candlestick Press for their new pamphlet of Christmas poems – Christmas Stories (a perfect postable present). When they asked me to contribute, I wasn’t sure what ‘story’ I might be able to tell, but, as often happens, it was trees that showed me the way.
My father – a mischievous man with delusions
of grandeur and Neapolitan charisma,
given to stories – told me his grandparents’ names
were Mary and Joseph. Only nine at the time,
I pencilled them in on our scant family tree
before catching the twinkle in his merry eye.
After that, every Christmas, not knowing
where I belonged, I’d gaze at the nativity,
away in the manger – pastoral, beatific –
wanting the holy family’s story to be mine.
My mother, down to earth, no nonsense, preferred
to blend into the background, almost invisible –
but at Christmas what made her happy was a tree.
Every year we’d trek deep in the wilderness
beyond the railway line, her swinging the big saw
as if it were a handbag. Under cover of dusk,
Mam at one end and me at the other, we’d carry
the chosen one home. Our trees were pine, not bought
spruce – long-needled, rangy, poached – hung
with mottled post-war baubles, paper lanterns.
Short of any other narrative to make sense
of the world we find ourselves in and to venerate
our lost ancestors – émigrés, survivors –
I tell my sons these stories in the dark of winter:
This year’s theme is ‘The Environment’ so here’s a poem from my new book Startling.
Tree of Knowledge
Unseasonable damp heat seeds spores,
a contagious grey pallor curls the tips of leaves
into fists. I cut off the mouldy shoots. We are
writing this poem together. Stray trusses stay
out of reach without tilting a shaky wooden ladder
against the snaking trunk to clamber into uncertainty.
A woman, no scholar of gravity, who planted a sapling
(Saturn, Tree of Knowledge) bought by post
from the British Library, I want the poem and its tree
to last longer, survive. The fruit’s just starting to set,
downy thumbs of sweetness, apples-to-be, mildew
and artless balance willing. Inside the poem,
unrunged, inside nature, might we catch sight
of love and know where we live?
Before the launch next week at Durham Book Festival, I’ll be hosting a workshop looking at how we might turn our concerns about ‘the environment’ into writing that catches the attention and has the potential to change minds and spur action.
You can find more information here. Look forward to seeing those of you who can make it at Clayport Library on Friday 14th October 4 – 5.30 and later at 7 in Collected bookshop. Lx
The poem is actually in couplets but once again I am confounded by WordPress’s blunt formatting – or my own lack of technical know-how. And so I surrender to digital wabi sabi and bow.
There hasn’t been much activity here lately because I’ve been so very busy elsewhere, online and IRL. Not long back from co-leading a retreat in the Trossachs, by Loch Voil, at Dhanakosa – a perfect place to step out of the hurtle of the digital and into moment-by-moment presence, with spring unfolding before our eyes. I love spending time up there and it was wonderful to be back after three years’ absence. You can find out more about their retreat programme here, if you’re interested.
As well as work continuing on my Writing the ClimateResidency and various groups meeting regularly, I have a new book to celebrate. The Knucklebone Floor is the story of Allen Banks and Susan Davidson, the Victorian widow who helped shape the landscape there with her wilderness walks, a tarn, bridges and summerhouses. This is the sequence of poems I wrote as part of my PhD Women on the Edge of Landscape and it’s very exciting to see it about to spring out into the world. Many thanks to Andy Croft at Smokestack for suggesting he publish it. And much appreciation to Matilda Bevan for the section of her Study of a Stream gracing the cover.
The first reading from The Knucklebone Floor will take place at this year’s Newcastle Poetry Festival on Friday 6th May, at 2.30pm. I’ll be joined by Anne Ryland and Dave Spittle, who’ll also be reading from their new collections (Unruled Journal and Rubbles). The day before I’m chairing a panel on Climate at the Emergency-themed Symposium (NCLA in conjunction with the Poetry Book Society) – with Jason Allen-Paisant, Polly Atkin and Sylvia Legris, whose new books I’ve really enjoyed: Thinking with Trees, Much With Body and Garden Physic, respectively. There’ll be plenty to talk about. You can see the Symposium and Festival programme here – lots of unmissable events, and I’m really looking forward to the chance for us all to gather as a community again.
More Knucklebone Floor events follow this opening splash – at Hexham Library, with Matthew Kelly, launching his book The Women Who Saved the English Countryside, as part of Local History Month, on May 12th, 7pm. Then at Inpress‘s pop-up shop in Ouseburn, Newcastle (8 Riverside Walk, between the Cluny and the Tyne Bar) on May 18th, 7pm, with Paul Summers (reading from his new book billy casper’s tears, also from Smokestack). I’ll also be at Allendale’s Forge in July and Ripon Poetry Festival in September – more of those nearer the time.
In the midst of all this fizz, I’m currently editing another book, to be published in the Autumn, when my Residency winds down, and launched at Durham Book Festival. This one’s called Startling and is an attempt to capture some sense of the vulnerability many of us feel in the face of our climate and ecological emergencies. As Margaret Atwood has said: it’s not Climate Change, it’s Everything Change.
Spring speeds everything up, like a time-lapse film and here we all are trying our best to find our place among it all and a way through, helping each other where we can. A deeply challenging, unpredictable time but I’m with Leonard Cohen, hoping that the cracks will let the light shine through.
…we are always in free fall. It’s not like we will find some moral high ground where we are finally stable and can catch all those falling around us. It’s more like we are all falling above the infinite groundlessness of life, and we learn to become stable in flight, and to support others to become free of the fear that arises from feeling unmoored. The final resting place is not the ground at all but rather the freedom that arises from knowing there will never be a ground, and yet here we are, together, navigating the boundless space of life, not attached, yet intimate.
After over ten months of thinking, reading and writing, my Climate Residency has officially come to an end. In the spirit of honouring endings to make space for new beginnings, I wanted to spend some time here reflecting on where I’ve been with it. Some of this you’ll know already – pandemic, lockdown, pandemic, lockdown: a jagged rhythm we probably haven’t seen the last of. It changed the form and energy of the way I had to work early enough in the Residency that I can’t quite imagine what it would have been like under pre-Covid conditions. I was glad I managed to squeeze in a couple of Climate-related gatherings right at the start – one with North East Culture Partnership in Sunderland and one with Julie’s Bicycle in London. Both were wonderfully sociable events, packed with stimulating and provoking ideas about the role and potential of culture in response to the Climate Crisis. Ironic, that culture-as-we-knew-it came to an abrupt halt just a few weeks later when the first lockdown was announced.
All my research and networking shifted online and I’ve lost count of all the webinars, gatherings and talks I’ve attended on various platforms. I’ve absorbed an enormous amount of information, and no doubt forgotten just as much. I’ve filled five notebooks with notes that started quite neatly but have become more and more erratic, teetering on the illegible. I tell myself that I’m in revolt after the strictures of the PhD process, but I’m still not entirely sure what it’s ‘useful’ to keep a record of, never knowing where my own writing will come from. Sometimes the origin of a poem is traceable, sometimes it stays hidden in the tangle of accumulated thoughts. I probably need to be aware that in my notebooks I’m writing notes to my future self and I could try to make it a little clearer for her sake. My process has always been gloriously messy, arcane, archive-unfriendly, untranslatable, and I can’t see that changing at this late stage.
I’ve missed the regular face-to-face human interactions that used to form the backdrop and compost of my writing, but feel even more deeply enmeshed in my patch of scruffy, windswept land held fast between the River and the Wall. Although I’m thankful that I do still seem able to write, I don’t find writing ‘about’ Climate any easier. Every single time I return to the blank page I have to start all over again trying to say something truthful, vaguely original, worth saying, possibly helpful. I spoke a little about the process and read some of the poems in progress for Newcastle University’s Inside Writing Festival in the summer. The poems are accruing slowly and all being well there’ll be enough of them to form a collection at some point. I’ve noticed I’m using the ‘I’ voice more than I expected, needing the ballast of close subjective observation (Goethe’s ‘tender empiricism’) to help cast them off into the vastness of the troposphere. There seem to be quite a few poems about trees and unsurprisingly the weather comes up a lot, the consolations of place in the face of grief, sadness and longing. I’m interested in the poetics of ethical dilemmas and solutions, energy and power, the confounding tangle of it all.
Alongside working on my own writing, I enjoyed curating the collective Murmuration project, and collaborating with Kate Sweeney on the film for Durham Book Festival. It was extremely heartening to hear so many positive responses filling the social void. The Residency has been beautifully managed and supported by Anna Disley at New Writing North, who’s been a helpful and encouraging presence throughout. Our Climate Book Group (open to all) read five books and has proved a satisfying, strong way to stay connected. We’re hoping that these will continue in the New Year – there’s already a growing list of potential novels, poetry books and non-fiction titles. This was one place where proper conversations could happen. I had others in various online forums or one-to-one in the open air, but mostly, it has to be said, with myself. Overarching themes which recurred in these conversations include:
I talked about my preoccupation with Time on the Inside Writing podcast. It’s key to the subject of Climate in multiple ways, not least the pressure of the fast-approaching deadlines for reaching carbon zero. The concept of Time encapsulates the conundrum that the only moment we can actually change is this one now. Albert Camus resolved it, saying ‘Real generosity to the future lies in giving all to the present’. The blessing (and the curse) of Covid has been to remind us to stay in the moment – the future even more uncertain and contingent than usual. Uncertainty is a fact of nature and, like death, one our culture would prefer us to deny or ignore. Beginning afresh over and over again, staying present, staying patient, is something we must learn, like circus skills, tightrope walking or juggling. If it has to be so, we may as well make it exhilarating, entertaining.
When the Residency started I was concerned the burden of focussing so thoroughly on the Climate Crisis might be too much to bear. You have to become slightly obsessed with a subject, immersed in it, to write about it at all. Is that what I wanted to spend all my time thinking about? I doubted my capacity for scientific information, my resilience, my energy levels, my ability to transform what I learned into poetry. It’s been a stretch, tiring and boggling, but, eleven months on, I’m feeling more hopeful about our potential for radical transformation. Because of my reading and all the online gatherings I’ve attended, I’m now much better informed. Knowledge brings power and hope. The story portrayed in the media tends to be on the dark side because that is the language of the ‘news’, however it’s clear that we have all the resources we need to take us into a carbon zero society. What we are lacking is unambiguous backing from governments and legal systems to keep the fossil fuel industry in check. The steady work of countless inspiring individuals and projects goes unreported in the mainstream news. We have heard about the US election result and that has brought more hope, an immense relief after months of fearing the worst.
Although there is occasion for hope, many obstacles remain and much work still needs to be done to fundamentally rethink how we live in the world and create a new ecological civilisation. Reducing emissions will help stabilise the impact of mass migration, resulting from drought, floods, poor crop yields and political instability. Even a 2 degree rise in global temperatures will create around 30 million migrants each year; if it rises by 4 degrees, that figure will increase to around 150 million. Open up any topic that needs political attention and Climate is an inextricable strand in the tangle – energy, ‘the environment’, transport, housing, finance. Although attention has been, understandably, diverted towards the challenges of the pandemic (itself adding considerably to plastic waste, a downturn in public transport and adversely affecting people’s mental health and well-being), Climate Crisis is still the biggest existential threat on the planet, as Greta Thunberg so valiantly keeps reminding us. The story needs changing to help us replace all coal-fired power stations with renewable energy. The law and human pressure can make this happen, if we open our hearts and minds to the damage we’ve caused, feel the grief of it and step beyond it into the practicalities of what needs to be done.
Black Lives Matter has shown us deep-rooted change starts with ourselves if we don’t want to be complicit in systems that perpetuate racism and injustice, intolerance for all diversities and the destruction of nonhuman species and habitats. This is a personal as well as a political dialogue. To do any deep work, we need to be capable of concentration, not constantly distracted by the digital world. I’m fiercely dedicated to my practice and process as a way of harnessing my own power in relation to Climate action, staying in tune with my responsibilities as a citizen of my small republic in the North and of the world. This finds expression in my work as a writer, inseparable from my commitment to an engaged Buddhist perspective on the ethics and ecology of what is real. Thai Forest Tradition teacher Ajahn Sucitto, in his book Buddha Nature, Human Nature (available for free distribution), says we can ‘choose not to look away, keep our eyes open so we can make clearer choices about what to eat, buy, who to associate with, how to occupy ourselves and who to vote for. Meet and share and help each other and participate in a positive spiral.’ We can choose to stay informed and make small adjustments every day. Seamus Heaney always used to say it’s what you do, how you live, in between the poems you write that matters. That is where all the potential lies.
A stray entry found in my orange notebook, undated but from earlier in the year, provoked by some (now forgotten) brick wall of joylessness:
Why is joy a dirty word? Why does it make most of us cringe? Do we think we don’t deserve it? Are we superstitious, imagining we might jinx it if we say it out loud? Is it just not British? Not polite? Or modest?
For a while in this work I kept on safe territory talking about hope (encouraged by Rebecca Solnit), while privately thinking about faith and my own idiosyncratic relationship with my ‘spiritual practice’ (too grand a term – basically how I consciously choose to live my life). The collision of idealism and imperfection has given me many opportunities to unlock a felt sense of compassion (another more dangerous word might be love). At the bottom of that, and on top of it too, is a palpable awareness of joy. I can’t live or love, do anything without it. It’s the positive energy I need to get out of bed in the morning and stay in touch with myself and have faith in my own creative fire. This is what Christiana Figueres calls ‘stubborn optimism’ – the rebellion or resistance in staying true to your deepest values – not giving way to the doomsayers, the whirl of the world where everyone talks and no one listens. There is joy in listening, as there’s joy in sometimes turning the volume not just down but off.
Sometimes there is an implication in environmental messages that human beings are the problem – the best solution stripping right back to zero, eradicating our footprint, our actions, our basic wayward energies. This is an anti-life philosophy, promulgating old burdens of guilt and despair, associated with systemic ideas about dominance, violence and the myth of perpetual growth. It is capitalism’s shadow played out in materialistic skin-deep environmentalism. The truth is we are part of nature too. We have a place among everything else on this planet. All of us.
Stay with the ragged joy of ordinary living and dying.
The only way I can begin to think about the question of how to write about Climate Change is to do it – start writing and see if I can spin a thread for myself, and maybe others, to follow. This will be the first in what I hope will be a series of posts to track my spinning.
In September I submitted my Creative Practice-based PhD – Women on the Edge of Landscape – investigating place and ecology, poetry and biography. I’ve written a collection of poems called ‘The Knucklebone Floor’, set at Allen Banks in Northumberland, imagining the 19th century widow who intervened in the landscape there – Susan Davidson (1796-1877) – as well as other women who have lived, worked and walked there before and since. I tried to find a voice for them all, acknowledging points of difference while testing the possibility of commonality, a collective vision of an authentic good, dwelling alongside the constantly changing beyond-human.
I called my critical reflective essay ‘Flower Album’ because I wanted it to be a place where I could assemble my ideas, process and reading, using another Victorian woman, Margaret Rebecca Dickinson’s (1821-1918) beautiful watercolours of native wild flowers as touchstones. These two very different northern women held a love of, and intimacy with, the natural world in common.
After over three years of looking at the macro-perspective of this particular landscape and the micro-view of the plantlife that grows there – all at a time of increasing urgency about Global Warming and Mass Extinction – I felt my own sense of intimacy with the land at Allen Banks deepen and grow. I became one of its creatures as much as the dormice, dippers and dragonflies who’ve made their homes in the woods and along the river. My essay’s ‘conclusion’ culminated in a call for tenderness, a conscious love for the earth that stands in the way of any harm being done to it, just as you would protect your own (or anyone else’s) children. Not on my watch.
If ‘Climate Change’ is portrayed as our enemy, if the phrase ‘Climate Emergency’ is intended to summon up associations of wartime solidarity, I am concerned that the dynamic evoked, the story conveyed, is an unhelpful one, leaning more into conflict than healing. Such attitudes tend to demonise Climate Change as just another ‘other’, to be hated and eradicated. When will we learn there is no such place as ‘away’?
If we know ourselves to be truly part of nature, inextricable from it, inside and out, isn’t it more fruitful to examine the part of ourselves that needs to affirm the polarity of Self and Other? What if we tried to come to terms with that part of ourselves that has contributed to Climate Change, allowed it to happen without doing anything to prevent it or radically alter the political structures that perpetuate our current crisis? Surely Climate Change is less the cause of our current crisis than the effect of what Naomi Klein calls ‘the deep stories about the right of certain people to dominate land and the people living closest to it, stories that underpin western culture’. I admire the way she has ‘investigated the kinds of responses that might succeed in toppling those narratives, ideologies and economic interests, responses that weave seemingly disparate crises (economic, social, ecological and democratic) into a common story of civilisational transformation.’
It’s important to be pragmatic and vote for the party you can trust to take action to protect the environment, but in the longer term, the system itself needs to change to ensure greater equity and justice – not just in this country but on a global level. How to achieve that is another question we will be struggling with in the years ahead.
Tenderness is not really a word that comes to mind listening to the politicians making the case for their party’s extravagant promises. But reading Mary Robinson’s Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future is maybe the nearest I’ve got to it. Telling stories of women around the world directly affected by Climate Change, she makes politics personal. She remembers one woman in drought-stricken Honduras saying to her: ‘We have no water. How do you live without water?’ Worrying about flying and driving and our various western consumer dilemmas, we really have no idea. These women trying to look after their children in the face of unimaginable deprivation and disruption are, as Robinson says, ‘the least responsible for the pollution warming our planet, yet are the most affected. They are often overlooked in the abstract, jargon-filled policy discussions about how to address the problem […] the fight against climate change is fundamentally about human rights and securing justice for those suffering from its impact – vulnerable countries and communities that are the least culpable for the problem.’
On the day that Mary Robinson became the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1997, Seamus Heaney wrote to her saying: ‘Take hold of it boldly and duly.’ That is what she is doing on the subject of climate and its impact on human rights. What would it look like if contemporary writers took hold of our current task ‘boldly and duly’? How would Seamus Heaney write about Climate Change? In what form would he express his grief for everything we have already lost? What are the words we might start hearing in unexpected places that could help us adapt and thrive?
Isn’t it the writer’s job to write so that people want to read or listen, so that what they’ve read or heard stays with them, strengthening their relationship with themselves, the world and each other? How do you write about Climate Change so that people want to keep on reading, not flick past in search of something more entertaining or distracting? For me, Voice usually matters more than Story – a form of words shared in passing that gives a sense of the writer’s pulse, the thrum of their beating heart, the intimacy with their conspirators I saw in the work of Susan Davidson and Margaret Rebecca Dickinson and have tried to translate into my own words.
Still inclined to spend some time in the 19th century, I’m currently listening to Samuel West’s reading of Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders and although the story is beguiling, fateful and compelling, it’s the atmosphere I love best, the sense of place, particularly as it’s evoked by Hardy’s own intimacy with those trees growing in Little Hintock, characterised almost as vividly as Giles Winterborne, Grace Melbury and Marty Short. If we knew trees in their natural habitat as well as this, perhaps we’d care for them better.
Although the time of bare boughs had now set in, there were sheltered hollows amid the Hintock plantations and copses in which a more tardy leave-taking than on windy summits was the rule with the foliage. This caused here and there an apparent mixture of the seasons; so that in some of the dells that they passed by holly-berries in full red were found growing beside oak and hazel whose leaves were as yet not far removed from green, and brambles whose verdure was rich and deep as in the month of August. To Grace these well-known peculiarities were as an old painting restored.
Now could be beheld that change from the handsome to the curious which the features of a wood undergo at the ingress of the winter months. Angles were taking the place of curves, and reticulations of surfaces – a change constituting a sudden lapse from the ornate to the primitive on Nature’s canvas…
We can only write from a sense of who we are, the wild landscape of our hearts and minds. The writing process depends upon our own unruly growth, the ways we choose to cultivate and nourish our imaginations and fill our days. Seamus Heaney said that too – that it’s what we do when we’re not writing that matters. Spending time with trees, observing their changes through the seasons, planting and protecting them – this too is the writer’s task and will send roots down into the thirsty soil of our collective imagination.
Naomi Klein has been encouraging people to read Richard Powers’s The Overstory. I’m late to the party but it’s next on my reading list. She says:
It’s been incredibly important to me and I’m happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we’ve been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It’s the same conversation we’re having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It’s also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.
This weekend the Woodland Trust’s Big Climate Fightback aims to encourage a million people in the UK to pledge to plant a native tree. They have a target to plant a tree for every person in the UK by 2025. We have a small oak seedling from a friend’s garden we’ll be adding to the recent replanting of the woodland behind our house. While you’re considering how a writer might write about Climate Change, what you need to read about it or who you’re going to vote for, you can pledge to plant a tree or support the Woodland Trust here.